BEFORE WE CAN understand Swami Vivekananda – or any other great spiritual leader or prophet- we must understand the true spirit of religion. And by religion I do not mean any particular faith, such as Hinduism, or Christianity, or Mohammedanism, or Buddhism, but what in India we call Sanatana dharma, the eternal religion. In this eternal religion there is no dogma, no creed, no doctrine, no theology. Three truths are pre­ served at the core of the eternal religion, and these may be very simply expressed.

The first of these truths states that God is. This proposition has been proclaimed by God-men in every age, and in every age people have asked for proofs that it is true. Many plausible arguments have been devised by philosophers and theologians to establish the existence of God. But every single argument substantiating His actuality on the basis of logic and reason may be contradicted by equally plausible arguments of opposing philosophers. All attempts to prove the existence of God through logic and reason are essentially futile. What, after all, can the philosophers and theologians establish? Only their particular idea of an absolute Reality, not the Reality itself. And what guarantee is there that their idea of God and the reality of God are one and the same?

The only proof of the existence of God is to be found in the second proposition: God can be realized. You can know Him, you can see Him, you can talk to Him, and you can experience your oneness with Him- in the transcendental state of consciousness.

And the third proposition is that God-realization is the supreme goal of human existence. We ask ourselves, Why am I here? What am I to achieve? The answer to these questions is, to find the abiding Reality in the midst of the transitory objects of life. Everything is ephemeral, everything passes away- except the truth of God, which is eternal.

When we come to the conclusion that these propositions are true, then we begin to understand that every being in the universe is divine. Divinity is our birthright. In the words of Vivekananda: “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divine within . . .” Behind the sinner’s sins, behind the saint’s saintliness, behind all activities and desires in this world is that one goal – unconscious though it may be: to unfold the indwelling Godhead. Every human being wants to rid himself of his bondages and frailties, and overcome death. And after experiencing pleasure and pain, good and evil, in many lives, he finally learns this truth: Abiding peace and freedom can be found only in God­ realization. And who realizes the eternal truth of God? He who consciously directs his mind and life toward this attainment.

Once we understand this message of Sanatana dharma, we can understand any great prophet or divine incarnation. And we can test whether a spiritual teacher is genuine or not. The criterion is: Does he give the message of eternal religion? Does he teach that God is, that He can be known, and that the purpose of life is to know Him?

IF a man becomes convinced that he should devote himself to the attainment of God-realization, naturally he will ask: “Are there any exemplars of divine knowledge in this present age who can say: ‘I have known the truth of God. I have reached immortal life. I have overcome the fear of death’?”

This question arose in the heart of young Naren, the future Swami Vivekananda. Naren was born with the ability to discriminate between the Eternal and the non­ eternal. Sense pleasures and enjoyments did not attract him, knowing as he did that, they are ephemeral. Philosophy and books did not satisfy him. He wanted to find the abiding Reality behind the fleeting things of life. He wanted to meet a man of enlightenment, a living exam­ ple of religious truth. And so he went to various priests and preachers, asking each one: “Sir, have you seen God?” Not one of them could answer that he had.

At long last, Naren went to Sri Ramakrishna, who was serving as priest of the Divine Mother in the Kali temple at Dakshineswar. This meeting between Naren and Sri Ramakrishna has a great significance.  The Master was living in the Dakshineswar temple garden as if on an island, far away from the noise of the world.  He hardly knew how to read and write. He had no book learning. And he had no idea of Western culture, education, or politics.

Naren, on the other hand, was steeped in Western science and philosophy. And he approached religion with the Western spirit of rationalism and inquiry. As he had asked the others, so he asked Sri Ramakrishna: “Have you seen God, sir?” And the answer was: “Yes, I see Him, just as I see you here – only much more intensely.”

From the very first, Sri Ramakrishna behaved with Naren as if he had always known him. He said:  “You have come so late! Why did you keep me waiting so long?” Then, with folded hands, the Master addressed the young man: “You are the ancient sage Nara, a part of Narayana [the Lord], born on earth to remove the sufferings of mankind.” And Naren thought to himself: “Who is this man to whom I have come?  He must be mad!” Yet the Master’s behavior with others seemed perfectly normal, and Naren could not help but be impressed by his evident renunciation and saintliness.

After returning to Calcutta, Naren could not get Sri Ramakrishna out of his mind. And he began to visit the Master often, feeling the attraction of his magnetic personality.

Sri Ramakrishna, on his part, recognized Naren as his apostle at their first meeting. Furthermore, he knew his future disciple to be a nityamukta, an ever-free soul. An associate of God, the nityamukta incarnates on earth for the good of mankind. Sri Ramakrishna regarded six of his disciples as belonging to this category of perfect souls; and among these was Naren.

THE Master was very careful to train each of his disciples according to his own particular temperament and capacity. He considered Naren ready to follow the path of Advaita Vedanta, or nondualism, from the very beginning. In this path, the aspirant rejects all transitory phenomena, asserting that Brahman – the impersonal Existence behind name and form- alone is real.

In this connection, the following reminiscences, which I heard directly from Swami Turiyananda, may be of interest. This brother monk of Swamiji (Vivekananda’s familiar name in later years) told me:

“At one time I was very interested in Advaita Vedanta. I spent much time reading Shankara and studying the scriptures, and therefore did not visit Sri Ramakrishna often. Later, one day, the Master said to me: ‘Why did you not come to see me?’ I explained to him that I had been studying Advaita Vedanta. So, he asked me: ‘Well, what is the truth of Vedanta? Isn’t it that Brahman alone is real and that the world is unreal?’ The Master added: ‘You may say that the world is unreal, but if you put your hand on a thorn, the thorn will prick your hand. But there is one, Naren, if he says there is no thorn, there is no thorn.'”

When Naren first came to Sri Ramakrishna, he was imbued with the religious ideal of the Brahmo Samaj, a theistic movement whose members worshipped God as a Personal Being with attributes, but formless. Naren, in those days, therefore thought it blasphemy to say, “I am Brahman.” When Sri Ramakrishna wanted him to read the Ashtavakra Samhita, a treatise on extreme nondualism, Naren objected that the ideas expressed in the book were atheistic and sinful. The Master smiled and said: “Just read a little to me. You won’t have to think that you are Brahman.”

One day at Dakshineswar, Naren and a friend were smoking and making fun of Advaita Vedanta. Naren said: “How can it be that this jug is Brahman, this cup is Brahman, and we too are Brahman? Nothing could be more absurd!” Hearing them laugh, Sri Ramakrishna came out of his room and asked: “What are you talking about?” And he gave Naren a touch. As a result, Naren had an experience which he later described as follows:

That magic touch of the Master that day immediately brought a complete revolution over my mind. I was amazed to find that there really was nothing in the universe but Brahman.

. . . For the whole day I lived in that conscious­ ness. I returned home, but there too everything I saw appeared to be Brahman. When I sat down to eat, I found that the food, the plate, the server, and I myself were nothing but Brahman. I took one or two morsels of food and again was absorbed in that consciousness . . .  All the while, whether eating or lying down or going to college, I had the same experience. I was constantly overwhelmed with an indescribable intoxication. While walking in the streets, I noticed horse carriages go by, but I did not feel inclined to move out of the way. I felt that the carriages and I myself were made of the same substance … When this state abated a little, the world began to appear to me as a dream . . . When I returned to the normal plane, I realized that I had had a glimpse of the nondual consciousness . . . Since then, I have never doubted the truth of nondualism.

SRI Ramakrishna did not want any of his disciples to be one-sided. Through the Master’s grace, Naren had had a glimpse of the impersonal Reality. Now Sri Ramakrishna wanted to teach him that God can also have form. But Naren was firmly opposed to image worship, and used to call the Master’s visions of the Divine Mother Kali hallucinations.

Meanwhile, Naren’s father had died, leaving his family poverty-stricken. As the eldest boy, it was Naren’s duty to provide for his mother and two brothers. He looked for a job, but could not find one. Worried and sad, he came to Sri Ramakrishna and appealed to the Master to pray for the removal of his family’s wants. Sri Ramakrishna said: “I can’t make such demands! Why don’t you go and ask the Divine Mother yourself? You don’t accept Her; that’s why you suffer so much.” Then the Master told Naren to go to the Kali temple. On the way, Naren was filled with divine intoxication; and when he saw the image, the Divine Mother appeared to him living and full of consciousness. When he returned to Sri Ramakrishna, the Master asked him if he had prayed to the Mother on behalf of his family. But Naren had forgotten all about it; he had asked the Mother only for pure knowledge and pure devotion. Sri Ramakrishna sent him back to the temple to pray to Mother Kali to provide for his family’s needs. At the sight of the Divine Mother, Naren again went into ecstasy. All his problems vanished in her presence. The Master sent Naren to the temple once more; and for the third time the young disciple could not pray for anything material. Then he understood the lesson the Master had wanted him to learn. He bowed before Mother Kali and Her power.  After returning to the Master’s room, he begged Sri Ramakrishna again to pray to the Divine Mother on be­ half of his people. And now the Master agreed, saying: “All right, they will never be in want of plain food and clothing.” This actually proved to be the case.

Naren had now realized God with form as well as without form. One day, he told Sri Ramakrishna that he wished to remain continually absorbed in the superconscious state, coming out of it only to eat a little in order to keep his body alive. The Master was displeased, and said: “Shame on you! … There is a higher state than that.” Naren was born for the good of mankind. He was not meant to taste the bliss of God only for himself, sitting absorbed in meditation, but to share this bliss with others. And so, the Master taught Naren the highest spiritual ideal: to realize God and live in the service of mankind.

How this service was to be performed, Naren learned in a unique manner. On one occasion Sri Ramakrishna was seated in his room, surrounded by his disciples. Naren was present. The Master was quoting the following teaching of a great saint: “Utmost compassion should be shown to all creatures.” Sri Ramakrishna, in ecstasy, repeated the word compassion, and then remarked: “Who am I to show compassion to others? No, not compassion for man, but service to him as the manifestation of God.” On coming out of the room, Naren said: “If the Lord grants me the opportunity, I will proclaim throughout the world the wonderful truth I have heard today.”

And he did proclaim this truth: See God in every being, and serve- not as philanthropy, but as a spiritual practice, as worship.

After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, his monastic disciples plunged themselves into spiritual disciplines. Swamiji past several years traveling through India as a wandering monk. He practiced meditation intensively and depended entirely on the Lord for food and shelter. Seeing his people’s poverty and suffering, he realized that the economic and educational standards of the masses needed to be raised. How could they be taught religion when their stomachs were empty! He received the inspiration to plan a voyage to America, there to give the message of Vedanta and to raise funds for his needy countrymen. Money was collected for his passage to the United States, and Swamiji gave it away to the poor. Another fund was collected. But Swamiji wanted to know the Lord’s will directly before under­ taking the journey. After praying to Sri Ramakrishna he had a vision of the Master, walking on the ocean and beckoning him to follow.

VIVEKANANDA preached his first sermon in Chicago at the World’s Parliament of Religions, where the West­ ern intellectuals of his day had congregated. What was the substance of Vivekananda’s message? It was the message of harmony and universality in religion. To quote from Vivekananda’s Chicago Address:

… if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location  in place or time; which will be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all  these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infi­ nite arms, and find a place for every human be­ ing, from the lowest groveling savage not far removed from the brute, to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart al­ most above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.

This is, in short, the message of Vivekananda.

Now again, Vivekananda had a dream. And his dream was to harmonize the cultures of the East and the West.

If we go to the original teachings of Christianity, we find there the one eternal truth of all religions. And if we go to the original teachings of Hinduism, we find there that same eternal truth. But what is preached as Christianity today and what is preached as Hinduism, that is what we have to consider, and that is where harmony must be established between the Eastern and Western cultures.

What has been the emphasis in the West? Humanistic and scientific development. Yes, there are God-fearing people. But what is their objective? For the majority of them it is enrichment of their life on earth. The idea of contemplation also exists in the West, but generally speaking, contemplation is considered to be a means for a temporal end. The religion taught by Christ – to know the truth, to pray unceasingly, to be perfect even as the Father in heaven is perfect – has become forgotten.

And what has been the emphasis in India? The spiritual life. Achievements in the external world were neglected because they were considered ephemeral. And what is the result? A few individuals devote themselvesto God and become saints, and the masses fall into inertia and idleness because they are not ready to devote themselves to a meditative life. That of course is not the true religion of the Hindus, but that is how Hinduism has been preached and misunderstood.

And so, the Western and the Eastern spirit, action and contemplation, are to be harmonized and combined. If external achievements are made the goal of life and God the means to reach that goal, there will continue to be suffering and misery. But if God is known to be the supreme purpose of existence, and activity and outward achievements are made the means to fulfill this purpose, then the divinity within man will become manifest, and he will see this divinity everywhere. This is the essence of religion, which Vivekananda summed up as follows:

Swami Prabhavananda



Do not depend on doctrines, do not depend on dogmas, or sects, or churches or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in man, which is divine; and the more this is developed in a man, the more powerful is he for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your  lives that religion does not mean words, or names, or sects, but that it means  spiritual  realization. Only those can understand who have experienced it. Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of mankind. They alone are the powers of light.

Swami Vivekananda


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